Statistics on risk can be misleading

According to the National Safety Council, the odds of dying in a “motor vehicle incident” are one in 112. The odds of dying from “air and space travel incidents” are one in 8,357.

The implication here is that flying is safer than driving.

You’ve probably heard this before. Economists love to cite this fact. It has shock value. It shows why impressions and emotions can be wildly misleading (flying certainly seems more dangerous than driving). What matters is how often people are actually killed or injured, not our feelings about which is more dangerous.

But what the National Safety Council’s graphic doesn’t explain is that these are aggregates. Their calculated odds of dying in a car accident does not control for the quality of the driver. If you don’t wear a seat belt and don’t stop at stop signs, I’m sure your odds are much higher. If you are safer than the average driver, then your odds are lower.

Of course, it’s not likely anyone is such a great driver (and, for that matter, that everyone driving around him or her is just as careful and considerate on the road) that their odds of death by car are lower than those of death by plane. One in 112 is a far cry from one in 8,357. But the point of this is to encourage you to take statistics like this with a grain (or several) of salt. Statistics on risk can be highly misleading.

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